If Iron Man 2 is any indication of what Marvel intends to do with Captain America: The First Avenger, then Marvel's ambitious project to create a shared superhero universe on the big screen might be in trouble. By design, Iron Man 2 sacrifices plot, character, and all-important screen time to secondary characters and subplots with the expanded presence of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the addition of Natasha Rushman/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Both characters may be necessary to the shared universe project, but they're not essential to Iron Man 2. Their presence in Iron Man 2 epitomizes the conflict between specific story needs and the demands of a shared superhero universe.

A shared superhero universe has been the norm in comic books for five decades. Marvel Comics' first, great editor and writer Stan Lee popularized superhero crossovers to boost sales for less popular titles. It worked. Superheroes guest-starred in each other's comic books, superheroes teamed up to battle a global threat individual superheroes couldn't take on alone, first on an ad hoc basis and then more permanently, e.g., DC's Justice League of America or Marvel's The Avengers. (Justice League of America has been in print since 1960 and The Avengers since 1963.) The inclusion of visual and verbal callbacks to earlier events in the same universe, other characters, or even other objects gave knowledgeable readers the satisfaction in spotting sometimes obscure reference while reminding them of the other comic books they weren't reading.



Reading comic books, like reading novels, however, is generally a solitary, individual exercise, one done in the privacy of your own home or apartment. Comic book stores, Internet sites, and comic book forums can and do bring readers, but the first, comic book stores, may not be available and the other two are handled remotely, without the nearness or immediacy that comes from face-to-face contact. But seeing a comic book brought to life on film offers an entirely new experience: it turns the solitary act into a communal one, presumably with like-minded moviegoers. A shared superhero universe, spanning several, interrelated films, offers an even more immersive, interconnected experience. That's what Marvel hopes to accomplish with Thor and Captain America next summer, and The Avengers in 2012.

To look closer at Marvel's first attempt at creating a shared superhero universe is to see why it didn't succeed in Iron Man 2. The Nick Fury we meet in Iron Man 2 plays different roles: he's a mentor, therapist, and chief recruiter for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Avenger Initiative. He also provides Stark with key information about his late father, Howard, and the clues (or rather crate) necessary to find a replacement for the element, palladium, that's poisoning him. Of the four roles, only one can be described as essential to Fury's character: recruiter for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Avenger Initiative. Two of the other roles, mentor and therapist, could have played by another, preexisting character (e.g., Rhodes), while the last role, an expository one, could have been either eliminated altogether or shifted back to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to discover the answers on his own.

That, of course, doesn't prove that a shared universe on film, superhero or otherwise, can't succeed. Shared universes have worked on television and in comic books for decades. Television viewers and comic book readers become, over time, deeply attached to the ongoing serial drama, of characters that can grow and change, of the imaginary worlds created by writers and artists. Serial television series like Lost and, quality aside, Heroes bring (or brought) viewers in based on their ability to create a sense of relatedness and interconnection.

To be fair, Iron Man 2 doesn't prove that a shared superhero universe on film isn't possible, only that Marvel Studios, director Jon Favreau, and screenwriter Justin Theroux failed to properly integrate elements of the shared universe into the central storyline, a process that requires goal-oriented primary or secondary characters, and making them active participants in whatever story you're trying to tell onscreen. How characters function in a film, what they do and why they do it, has to be clear, at least in mainstream filmmaking. If a character only serves to provide information (e.g., backstory, exposition), he or she is usually a reflection of the screenwriter's inability to imagine a situation where the central character or characters discover the information to move the story forward through research or investigation.

Iron Man 2 was (and still is) all the more frustrating because this problem could have been easily fixed during the screenwriting stage. Make Fury a hero who acts, not a walking (or sitting) exposition device or a deus ex machina. But do that and you lose Rhodes or make him an insignificant character. Save Natasha Rushman for The Avengers (where she really belongs) or make her Stark's romantic interest, an idea that Pepper Potts' fans would obviously dislike. Make Potts more than a romantic interest or damsel-in-distress, but by essentially doubling characters, Fury/Rhodes and Rushman/Potts, you're also splitting character functions. Sadly we know that turned out, this time.

Is the idea of a shared superhero universe on film flawed? Or was Marvel Studios' execution of the shared superhero universe the problem? If the latter, can Marvel fix the problem in time for Thor and Captain America? Or, given that Thor and Captain America are either in production or about to start production, is it too late?

The first response gets a "No Prize."